Rancho El Limón

Rancho El Limón, forty-five minutes out of Puerto Vallarta toward the Sierra Madre Mountains in the state of Jalisco, is a real, honest-to-goodness organic farm. Every Sunday, Alison brings the ranch’es bounty of cherry tomatoes, mixed salad greens, fennel, arugula, freshly laid eggs, and sometimes a giant Mexican squash or watermelon, to the market at the La Cruz Marina.

Since the Sunday Market began, Alison and her table of organic harvest are all we have known about Rancho El Limón, so Russ and I jumped at an opportunity to visit the ranch when we were invited to an open house. It was a chance for a number of us who participate in the market to tour the ranch, meet Alison’s partner, Manuel de Jesús, and learn about the other side of Rancho El Limón, the Pura Vida Spa.

The day was one of those bright, sunny Mexican days, when the sun seems too bright, the sky almost too brilliant. Alison and Manuel had a lunch ready for us under the cool shade of mango trees, featuring — what else — a huge salad of homegrown ingredients, with local fresh cheeses and corn tortillas. We would have expected nothing less. Even the salad dressing of pureed tomatoes came from the land.

Alison was formerly involved in a venture that sold chimeneas made to her specifications. This interesting stove, made of fired, glazed clay, comes with racks for cooking over the chimney, and that is exactly how the tortillas served with lunch were heated over a fire of mango wood. This type of stove, in one form or another, is found all over the world, and Mexico has a long tradition of relying on chimineas for heating and cooking. This one was a beauty in form and function.

A large, clay horno, or oven, was just outside the kitchen. It had recently been used to cook pizzas, but they were not on the menu today. Hornos, made of adobe clay, also have a long history in Mexico, and are seen in backyards throughout the countryside.

After lunch, we were taken on a tour of the house, with its spacious dining room, well-appointed guest rooms, and breezy walkways. Manuel has owned the ranch house and its thirty hectares of farm land for over twenty years. The house has a comfortable, welcoming feel, perfect for an afternoon with friends.

This was when we learned about the other business side to Rancho El Limón, known as Pura Vida Spa. Winter visitors and busy Puerto Vallartans can spend a few days enjoying the treatments for body and soul, with massage, steam baths, stretching exercise, and other activities that sooth and relax.

The highlight for me, beside the organic lunch, great ranch house, hospitable hosts, pleasant companions, and shady garden setting — in short, everything — was the tour of the greenhouse, the source of our weekly, organic salad fixings. Rancho El Limón produces its own compost and worm castings for pesticide- and chemical-free produce.

The afternoon ended with a walk to the calm Rio Ameca, a far cry from the raging river it can become during the summer rainy season. Sculpted ficus trees and wild flowers lined the walk. The dogs romped. A perfect afternoon.

Alison is at the Sunday Market at the La Cruz Marina, and can tell you more about Rancho El Limón, its organic produce and spa activities. As long as you are there, buy some salad greens and cherry tomatoes. Her tomatoes are as sweet as candy.

Alison is also at the Sayulita market every Friday from 10 am until 2 pm until May 13. She is organizing a summer market at the Bucerias Bilingual Community Center that will begin Saturday May 7, also 10 am until 2 pm. The BBCC is two blocks behind Carnes del Mundo on Calle 16 de Septiembre, #48.

Rancho El Limón has a web page with more information and photos. It is between Ixtapa and Las Palmas, but don’t try to find it by yourself — the maze of ranch roads are tricky to negotiate.  Alison can provide detailed directions if you want to visit.

Rancho el Limón
Las Palmas, Jalisco
044 322 110 1689 English
044 322 174 8986 español
From within USA/Cananda 858 736 9004
email: info@rancholimon.com,  rancholimon@gmail.com

Chocolate: The Exhibition

Chocolate: The Exhibition, is showing now until January 2 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. While visiting family in Minneapolis, I was able to visit this exhibit, on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago. This is a very well assembled presentation, both educational and entertaining. It begins with the history of cocao, starting with its Aztec origins, follows chocolate’s introduction to Europe by the Spaniards, explains its connection with the slave trade, and ends with a well detailed display of commercial chocolate candy production.

Chocolate making tools, historical and modern, are on display. I smiled to see a molinillo, almost identical to the two I brought from Mexico as gifts. This ancient tool, used for hundreds of years to foam hot chocolate, is still widely used in Mexico today. The molinillo on display is labeled a “stirrer”, which I think is a misnomer. When using a molinillo, a whisking action, not a stirring action, is employed to create foam and bubbles.

Two more molinillos are in the case pictured below, with the deep, clay pots used for foaming chocolate drinks. Molinillos, hand carved with their jangly rings from a single piece of wood, are still sold in Mexican markets and even in some modern supermercados.

I thought I already knew a lot about chocolate, but I was surprised to learn about its connection to slavery. The Aztecs had yet to discover sugar and drank their chocolate bitter, seasoned with chiles and other spices, but the Europeans added sugar and the new drink became a favorite.  As this new taste swept through Europe, a great demand for cocao beans and cane sugar grew. The dark side to this story is that a huge pool of slave labor was required to supply Europe with chocolate and sugar. Ironically, the first people pressed into slavery to harvest great quantities of cocao beans and sugar cane were Mesoamericans, who labored from the early 16th. until the late 18th. century to supply European demand.

I regret including such a negative note about one of my favorite foods, but I would be amiss to ignore the fact that much of today’s chocolate is still produced from cocao beans harvested by children, literally working as slaves. This is a dirty secret of the chocolate industry, one swept under the rug as profits trump ethics. Buy chocolate labeled “Fair Trade” to insure you are not participating in a commerce that exploits slave workers. To see a list of companies producing fair trade and organic chocolate, and to learn more about exploitation of cocao workers, read Stop Chocolate Slavery.

(Update: For more on this topic, see my more recent article , Chocolate, Slavery and our Collective Guilt.)

After writing this, I’m ready to eat chocolate. Thank goodness I have four bars of B.T. McElrath chocolate, handcrafted chocolate from Minneapolis. Thank goodness it is fair trade chocolate. I don’t know which bar I like best: Chile Limón, Dark Chocolate or Salty Dog, with a pop of salt crystals in each bite.

Please describe the photo

Chocolate: The Exhibition will be on on display through January 2, 2011, at the  Minnesota History Center, located at 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children. Phone: 651-259-3000.


More reading:

History of Chocolate (Field Museum)

How to Foam Hot Chocolate with a Molinillo

Comida Mexicana is alive and well in Minneapolis

It can be a challenge to find great restaurant food when eating out far away from home. And finding great Mexican food in the Midwest is even more of a challenge. When we hit the jackpot at Marissa’s Deli on “Eat Street” in Minneapolis, I knew there was only one reason: Flor the cook is from Mexico — Puebla to be exact — and she knows her stuff. In between serving customers, she was pressing corn tortillas on her wooden press, a sight that is, to me, the gold standard of authentic Mexican cooking. ¡Que milagro!

My son orderd a quesadilla al pastor (top photo). He liked it enough to immediately order another. My daughter-in-law had pork stewed in a tomatillo-green chile sauce, served with beans, rice, tortillas and sweet grilled onions, just like they make them in Mexico. You may know already that I don’t eat pork (see About on masthead at top), but I have to say that her dish looked delicious.

I more or less stayed true to my eating habits, and order beef — tacos de cabeza. I really wanted tacos de lengua (tongue), but Flor was already out of it. I guess I’m not the only one who knows how good tongue tacos can be. So I settled for cabeza, muscle meat of the head. To the squeamish, this may be more information than you really want to know, but this is how it is in Mexico — all parts of the animal are eaten. This culture does not waste much. I was glad to see that this culinary value can stay with cooks, even when they are out of their motherland.

The tacos were served exactly like you would see them in Mexico, with lots of chopped cilantro, a great salsa verde and lime wedges. The only difference was that the plastic plate was not encased in a plastic bag to facilitate dishwashing, a practice common in Mexico. Flor was the dishwasher as well, and obviously has some sense of restaurant decorum to serve plates without plastic bags.

The setting is simple — a few chairs and tables near the counter where you place and pick up your order, a TV on the wall tuned to a telenovela, one of Mexico’s beloved soap operas, and a tub of  jalapeños en escabeche on every table. Marissa’s Deli is attached to Marissa’s grocery store, and there is also Marissa’s Bakery, a muy mexicana panadería selling pastries glowing with brightly colored icing and tons of sugar. Hot pan de muertos, egg-rich “bread of the dead” with dough formed in the shape of bones on a skull, was ready for All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos.

Sugary churros and flakey pastries were tempting, and I would be lying to say we did not take home a bag with almost something of everything.

Maybe Flor will  move back to Mexico someday and open a restaurant. Until that day, if you are anywhere close to Minnepolis, Marissa’s Deli is worth seeking out. It doesn’t get any better in or out of Mexico.

Marissa’s Deli; 2750 Nicollet Ave.; Minneapolis MN; (612) 871-4519

Marissa’s — Mercado Mexicano in Minneapolis

Just when I was starting to miss Mexico — its colorful markets, sweet tropical fruit, chiles of all colors and sizes — I found Marissa’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What a vibrant, honest to goodness Mexican grocery store, as good as any tienda south of the border. I felt right at home cruising the aisles of produce, with selections of nopal, pineapples, tomatillos, cilantro, chiles, even the elusive epazote.

Beautiful murals cover the walls depicting agrarian scenes from the homeland, scenes that every Mexican must picture when they are so far from home, scenes that no longer exist in much of today’s modern Mexico, but still found in the interior of the country. For the murals alone, Marissa’s is worth a visit.

This is surely the best Mexican grocery store I have ever found outside of Mexico. Large, well organized, with a very extensive inventory, there is not much this store does not carry for a cocina mexicana. Every essential ingredient called for in your Mexican cookbook, plus a few non-essential goodies, like neon-colored gelatins and conchas, a favorite pan dulce, are in abundance. But maybe these are essential to cure homesickness for any mexicano far from home. Just walking the aisles took me back to my little Mexican town for a short while.

My experience with Mexican cooks has given me an appreciation for their great love of  traditional food of Mexico. The average home cook is not experimenting with Italian or French recipes. The mothers and grandmothers of the household are cooking pots of beans, buying freshly made tortillas, making fresh and cooked salsas every day — feeding their families the dishes they grew up on, the same food their mothers and grandmothers made. And if these cooks are living far from home, stores such as Marissa’s, found in every town in the U.S. where there is a sizeable Mexican population, are providing all the special ingredients for these timeless dishes, some of which have been made since Pre-Columbian times.

At Marissa’s you will find corn husks and masa for tamales, dried chile ancho and guajillo for salsas, nopal for salads, epazote to season beans. I went in looking for cajeta to make Chocoflan, and there it was. This was a busy store, testament to the many, many kitchens in this town serving up authentic Mexican food.

And like all the little tiendas in Mexico, Marissa’s also carries other essentials, such as loofahs, tortilla presses, pinatas, earthenware pots, and traditional candles.

Besides the grocery store, there is also an attached deli with an extensive, authentic Mexican menu and a bakery with pan dulce of all kinds. We had a great lunch prepared by a young cook from the city of Puebla, and took home sweet breads for dessert. If I can beg or borrow more computer time while I’m visiting, I want to tell you about our lunch. If you find yourself in Minneapolis, don’t miss breakfast or lunch at Marissa’s. This place is the real deal.

Marissa’s Grocery Store, Deli and Bakery; 2750 Nicollet, (612) 871-3628; hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.

Carnes del Mundo in Bucerias — A Meat Eater’s Haven

Photo  by Irma Quast

For meat lovers, the selection does not get any better than the offerings at Carnes del Mundo in Bucerias. Kyle and Irma Quast have any meat you are looking for, plus some processed meats you probably haven’t heard of. For many residents from north of the border who are used to the taste of aged beef — something not available in the local meat markets — this is the place to come for a T-bone steak, prime rib or filet mignon that tastes even better than what you get at home. There is also a great selection of processed meats, and specialty meats, like buffalo, ostrich and crocodile.

A few numbers: Carnes del Mundo sells two hundred and twenty different meat products, including fifty kinds of sausage, plus special orders. Italian sausage, rib-eye steaks and marinated, deep-fried chicken strips are the top sellers.

The Cuban Longaniza, a sausage similar to chorizo but much better, is seasoned with pineapple, habanero chile and cane sugar.  Russ, my chief taster, took one look at it when I came in the door, cut off a length and threw it on the grill. The knife and fork can be quicker than the camera in our house. I had to camouflaged the cut end with cilantro for the photo.

Carnes del Mundo supplies many of the local restaurants with carnivores’ delicacies, such as all-steak hot dogs. One well known restaurant uses the Cuban longaniza for their paella dish. Other specialty meats include duck prosciutto, cherry smoked duck breast, dry Spanish chorizo and Texas hot links.

Photo by Irma Quast

You will just have to visit the store to see everything — the inventory is too extensive to list — but I will tell you that you can get just about any sauce you need to compliment your meat purchase: satay sauce, chipotle sauce, honey mustard, desperado B.B.Q., and Thai noodle, to name a few. All their sauces are made on the premises.

And they deliver. And they will provide the meat for your party, be it a bar-b-que or a pig roast.

Photo by Irma Quast

And they do specialty orders. And they will be at the Old Town Farmers’ Market in Puerto Vallarta when it re-opens November 6.

Photo by Irma Quast

Next time you have a hankering for meat, you know where to go. It’s well worth the drive from Puerto Vallarta.

Carnes del Mundo; Heroe de Nacozari 31; Bucerias, Nayarit; 329-298-2000

8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday.





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